Heartbreak and hope are two words that define this 1948 classic by one of South Africa’s most important writers. I picked it up recently because it’s on our daughter’s middle school reading list and while I vaguely remembered some of the plot, I realized I had never read it through …
How Alan Paton’s now-classic first got to the presses is itself a noteworthy story to share. By the end of World War II, Paton was already an accomplished educator who reformed a Johannesburg reformatory for troubled black youths into a school where boys aged 9 to 21 could get both an education and learn a trade. To further train himself, Paton toured penal systems in 1946 throughout Scandinavia, Britain, Canada, and the United States at his own expense. In between extensive meetings and site visits, Paton managed to write Cry in just three months. He completed the book in San Francisco, where newfound friends read it, admired it, had it typed, and sent it to New York. Miraculously within weeks, an American publisher readily accepted the manuscript. It proved to be an instant bestseller.
The story is epic. Stephen Kumalo, an elderly Zulu village pastor, travels to Johannesburg in search of his sister at the behest of a stranger’s letter that alludes to her grave suffering. While there, Kumalo is also determined to find his only child, his son Absalom, who went in search of his aunt and never returned. In Kumalo’s remote, bereft village where “the maize hardly reaches the height of a man,” only the elderly are left. “The men are away, the young men and the girls are away. The soil cannot keep them anymore.”
In the big city, Kumalo is befriended by the kind Msimangu, a fellow pastor who humbly remarks, “I am a selfish and sinful man, but God put his hands on me, that is all.” With Msimangu’s unwavering help, Kumalo reunites with his sister who readily agrees to leave her life of alcoholic prostitution. His son, when Kumalo finally finds him, is shockingly under arrest for murder. The victim, tragically, was one of few white men fighting for the rights and dignity of the native Africans. The murdered man’s father lives in the neighboring valley next to Kumalo’s parish, and both men will return home as sonless fathers. But amidst the tragic violence, Kumalo never loses sight of the humanity around him, always grateful for kindnesses, small and large – the talented lawyer who goes to court on Absalom’s behalf free of charge “for God,” the bright young son of the murdered man who appears for unexpected visits, and even the eager young agricultural specialist who might somehow save the barren village.
In the 1987 edition’s introductory note, Paton explains his emblematic title, the result of a “little competition” with his California benefactors. Each wrote down a title, which turned out to be the same: “Cry, the Beloved Country.” The passage, Paton reveals, is repeated in the book: “Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear …” Paton quotes his 1969 self about his 1948 debut, “Just how good [the story] is, I do not know and I do not care. All I know is that it changed our lives. It opened the doors of the world to us, and we went through.” Decades later, the literary world has deemed it better than good, and indeed, it continues to open doors …
Readers: Young Adult, Adult
Published: 1948, 1987 (new edition)